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May 2009



- Alan

Maitreye is a residential housing project situated between Prayatna and Sharnga in the Residential Zone. The aim is to provide various types of housing for approximately 250 residents. In the first phase, 16 houses are being constructed. There are units for single persons, couples and families.

“I developed four designs to cater for different needs,” says Sonali the architect. “However, when we launched the project nobody bought for many months. It turned out that many people didn't want to pay more than ten lakh rupees for a house yet they still wanted two bedrooms. So I had to reintroduce an earlier design and that is the one which has sold best. Most of Maitreye's clients now have houses which cost ten lakhs or less.”

Model of a family house in Maitreye. Photo courtesy Sonali.The project brief states that Maitreye is intended to “cater for the needs of Newcomers and Aurovilians with limited resources for their housing needs.” Sonali characterizes Maitreye's method of construction as ‘cost-effective'. “When we studied most of the existing houses in Auroville, we realized two things: that the basic structure often costs lots of money and that people don't want to compromise on finishing. So we developed a less costly structure by having random rubble masonry rather than reinforced concrete foundation and by making the whole structure load-bearing, using frame construction only for lateral ties against earthquake forces. We also provided three different types of finishing options.”

Because the houses are relatively scattered (this is a low-density sector of the Residential Zone) and not parallel to each other, noise should not be a major problem. When an internal wall is shared by two houses the cavity will be filled by sand. “There are more sophisticated ways of noise insulation but we don't have the money for this.” The external walls are constructed by laying two hollow fired bricks side by side, creating two different cavities to dampen sound as well as provide thermal insulation. “In Kerala many architects use these hollow blocks for insulation against solar radiation. The other problem we have here is high humidity, so all the houses in Maitreye have cross-ventilation. Also the rooms have high ceilings and the windows can be opened at different heights to maximize the air flow. Moreover the roof slabs are also made of hollow terracotta blocks for insulation and to save on the amount of concrete used.

“When it comes to ventilation, the experts discourage very compact design in the tropics. It's better to have scattered houses so that the air can circulate around them. Scattered structures also help create different air pressures: even if your house is not oriented to the prevailing wind, air will be sucked in if your house is so designed that the rear develops negative pressure. But this is a science in itself.”

How sustainable is Maitreye? Wastewater treatment and rainwater harvesting systems are all included. But what about the building materials? Doesn't brick have a lot of embodied energy? Sonali pauses. “They say fired brick is less sustainable than earth blocks, but I feel fired brick has a longer life than non-fired brick so in the long term it may be more sustainable. Actually, I started planning Maitreye with a completely eco-friendly approach. For example, I thought of doing rammed-earth foundations and walls but when it came to implementation the team considered other factors. Rammed-earth foundations, for example, get penetrated by tree roots, and contractors don't feel comfortable making houses which may require more maintenance later on. So we had to step back from the most eco-friendly approach. Even some of the residents didn't want earth walls because they think there would be problems with termites and fungus.”

There will be a lot of green space in Maitreye. “We tried to save as many trees as we could, cutting only Work Trees and even shifting some houses to save trees. We attempt to balance the personal and collective by having open landscaping in the centre of the community while allowing residents to have private spaces behind their houses. In terms of collective facilities, we have only a laundry in the first phase. Originally we thought of building a community kitchen but shelved it because the Solar Kitchen is close by. But if the residents want it, we can introduce it in the second phase.

“As to social sustainability, it turns out that almost every resident is of a different nationality and 70% are Newcomers, 30% Aurovilians (one of whom will be me). We also have people from different economic backgrounds. We have a number of ideas to sustain the community economically. One is to construct a number of studios which the community can rent out.

And the look? “I have used traditional materials – brick, stone, terracotta – but the forms are very modern. In this way I think Maitreye reflects something of the ethos of Auroville.”
Interesting as the technical innovations are, Joseba, one of the project holders, believes that the most important thing about Maitreye is the spirit of service behind the project which is reflected in the efforts the team are making to reduce overheads. “Basically there are two approaches to all the housing projects today in Auroville. One is a commercial approach; the other is providing a service.” The commercial approach, he points out, often results in up to 20% being added to the total cost of a house because of architects', contractors' and general management fees. “Architects typically charge 5-7%, contractors between 10-15% and there may be an additional 2% on top for management. But in Maitreye's case the overall overheads have been reduced as much as possible. The total overheads, including architect's, contractor's fees etc., are below 10%. This is one of the reasons we can offer the houses at an affordable price. I'm happy to see that quite similar approaches are being adopted in Realization and by the team behind the Luminosity project.”

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